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Talking about sustainability? Don’t tell people to be green

Don’t confuse your audience

Insetting. A client slipped that word into our conversation a few days ago. My mind went blank. I’ve heard of offsetting but, even though I’m a specialist in sustainability communications, this term was a new one for me. If you’ve been discussing sustainability recently, have you heard this one?

Apparently, my client explained, it means offsetting the carbon dioxide emissions of the supply companies you use. So, here I could throw in another phrase used frequently by sustainability professionals: it means offsetting your scope three emissions. How are you doing now? Completely confused yet?

I have to admit that I groaned inwardly when I heard this. Another word to confuse businesses trying to embrace sustainability. This is even more relevant given a survey recently carried out by the British Business Bank. It’s been talking to small and medium-sized businesses about their progress in adopting sustainability, and the results are fascinating (you can read the full report here).

Whilst over half of respondents are aware of the government’s net zero by 2050 target, 56% said they’d made no attempt to obtain knowledge or capability about how to decarbonise their business – sobering given this sector accounts for half of corporate greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s stopping businesses from becoming sustainable?

Lack of information is identified as one of the key barriers preventing businesses from becoming sustainable (others include cost and lack of expertise). That last one struck me particularly as it’s a major reason quoted by members of public for not changing to greener behaviours.

Yet there’s lots of information out there, numerous companies whose primary purpose is to provide information and guidance about becoming sustainable. Most business support organisations now have sustainability hubs providing advice and resources for members. So why isn’t this getting through?

There will be many reasons, no doubt, but I firmly believe that the language used by the sustainability sector and the lack of putting itself into its target audience’s shoes are two principal factors.

The sustainability sector has emerged out of the scientific world – obviously essential for providing the evidence that the climate and biodiversity crises, and all the other issues, are real. However, this has led to a profusion of academic terms and language which haven’t been translated into everyday language.

The sector has also described the whole issue in terms of saving the planet. As there have been five mass extinctions of life in the millions of years since life first evolved, it will continue whatever we do. Instead, for many people, they need to hear how a sustainable society will benefit them – and this is the missing aspect of green communications.

Use psychology to inform your words

A massive global study of consumers’ sustainability attitudes and how they react towards environmental messages identified four main personality types. ‘Save the planet’ was not the major theme which pressed those green action buttons:

The ‘aspirationals’ want to be greener but need to be told how. However, they’re more concerned about what their peer group is doing and its attitudes and opinions. Their main hobby is shopping so the ‘reduce consumption’ and ‘be greener’ messages might fall on deaf ears here without the backdrop of their peer group’s influence.

The ‘practicals’ aren’t averse to being greener but their main concern is efficiency, cost effectiveness, time saving, making their life easier. In other words, how they personally will benefit. In that survey by the British Business Bank, ‘it made financial sense’ was the most common driver by far cited by businesses that had already taken decarbonising action.

The ‘indifferents’ don’t believe in this sustainability thing, and they’ll be greener when there’s no other choice.

The ‘advocates’ are the committed environmentalists for whom reducing their personal impact upon the planet is the most important goal whatever the cost or inconvenience.

If I tell you that the practicals and aspirationals made up three quarters of the respondents, then hopefully you can begin to see the need for a re-evaluation of how we sell the green  message to everyone outside of the sustainability sector – which, let’s face it, is the majority of the population.

To help you get yourself into the shoes of these groups, just think about your family, friends and colleagues and try to assign them to one of the above categories. It can be eye-opening and could completely shift how you talk about sustainability – especially if you do a bit of informal market research by talking to them about their understanding of sustainability and what would persuade them to become greener.

Speak to a new audience

And get outside of your own echo chamber when you do this! We all tend to spend our social time with people who hold similar views to us, and if you add this to working with people who think the same as you, ask yourself exactly how are you going to learn how to ‘sell’ sustainability? Because selling sustainability is what we’re having to do each time we try to persuade people to switch to greener behaviours.

I call all this the ‘psychology of green’. Understanding where your target audience is in terms of understanding and their personal goals is called marketing in the communications world.

If we combined all this with that passion shown by sustainability champions and professionals for creating a greener world, then I believe the 2030 target the IPCC has given us wouldn’t be a pipe dream.

Guest blogger

Caroline Aistrop is the creative director of Green Spark Marketing. She has over 30 years of experience in communicating sustainability to inspire your target customers with your sustainability story. She has a background in zoology and ecology and has a wealth of experience in PR, communications, awareness-raising campaigns and much more. If you would like to connect with Caroline, please find her on Linkedin.

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